Dealing with Complaints: Is it Really Worth Saying Sorry?

In light of the new drive by Lloyds Bank to reduce levels of customer complaints, ( currently running at about 2000 per day, new research on apologising makes thought-provoking reading.

Psychologists report that people who have a complaint believe that an apology will help but, when they actually get one, it doesn’t seem to live up to expectations.

David De Cremer and Chris Reinders Folmer compared how people felt when they simply imagined that they had received an apology, to how people felt who really did receive one. 

They found that an imagined apology was valued more than a real apology, suggesting that the thousands of people complaining to the banking industry every day are probably expecting an apology to help the situation more than it actually will. 

So the question for all customer service providers is: is it worth apologising at all when simply uttering the words to someone who deserves one will run the risk of disappointing them further?  Perhaps customer complaints handlers should simply not apologise.

Well, of course they should.  We all know how infuriating it is when the instigator of our frustration or annoyance refuses to take responsibility for causing inconvenience or distress.  Saying sorry is, or should be, a clear indicator of acceptance of responsibility for both the situation and for the effect on the other person.

However, to complicate matters for complaints handlers, the apology needs to be perceived as sincere.  Anything that sounds like it is simply a scripted, standardised apology with no depth or genuine appreciation of the “hurt” caused is not going to improve a customer’s impressions at all. 

Professor Michael McCullough of the University of Miami and author of “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct”, argues that a genuine apology works because it encourages empathy in the recipient which increases the recipient’s ability to forgive.

Of course, in a formal complaint handling department such as the 200-strong dedicated unit that Lloyds has just set up to handle their 2000 complaints a day*, the person giving the apology is unlikely to be the actual person, or body, responsible for creating the problem.  However, the response to someone understanding your distress, acknowledging responsibility and committing to helping sort it out may well transfer to the wider organization through a variety of typical cognitive processes.  In a corporate setting this humanizes and connects the corporate service provider with the customer through the emotional connection between the two people involved in the apology.

* For information, Lloyds doesn’t compare badly to others in the finance sector like Barclays and Santander who have more than double the amount of complaints per account.

Given the personal connection required to effect a sincere apology, clearly the skill and the disposition of the people staffing Lloyds’ new complaint-handling centre are going to be central to the effectiveness of the department in improving customer satisfaction with the company.

And returning to the research on the disappointing nature of real apologies, it suggests that even the most sincere of apologies will fall short.  Professor de Cremer suggests that his results indicate that “…an apology is a first step in the reconciliation process (but)…you need to show that you will do something else.”  There needs to be considerably more substance to the interaction to leave the customer feeling satisfied with the situation and the organization.

Much to do, banks, much to do.



1. De Cremer, D. & Reinders Folmer, C.P. (2011). How Important is an Apology to You? Forecasting Errors in Evaluating the Value of Apologies. Psychological Science, 22(1), 45-48.

2. McCullough, Michael E. (2008), Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, Wiley and Sons, ISBN 078797756X, 9780787977566


2 Comments to “Dealing with Complaints: Is it Really Worth Saying Sorry?”

  1. Great post. Perhaps you and your readers have seen some of the literature on the service recovery paradox, that customers who have had a poor experience that is rectified may actually become more loyal customers than those who have not had the same poor experience. On surface it makes clear sense, except when you consider repeated disappointments on the service front — one bad meal at a fine restaurant with great service recovery may bring me back; two bad meals and it seems like a pattern (that is, unless I like being comped for poor service!). There is probably ample room to conduct research on the service recovery paradox, everything from the cognitive and emotional phasing of reaction, to how service providers manage the recovery situation.

    I write about similar topics in my own blog, BestCustomerConnection – how nice to see your work in this form. I shall look forward to seeing more of it!


  2. Simple good manners is ALWAYS a good thing. These are pivot points in the arc of the customer relationship and present a crucial opportunity to learn what your org may be doing wrong and also to bond further with the customer, but ONLY if concrete action is taken to rectify the current complaint and keep it from happening again.
    The worst is when someone says they are “sorry you feel that way”, very patronizing and potentially inflammatory!

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